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Chapter 49 - The Rifle Rangers by Mayne Reid

A Hang by the Heels

It was a long night—the longest I can remember—a night that fully illustrated the horror of monotony. I can compare our feelings to those of one under the influence of the nightmare. But, no—worse than that. Our savage sentries occasionally sat down upon our bodies, and, lighting their cigaritos, chatted gaily while we groaned. We could not protest; we were gagged. But it would have made little difference; they would only have mocked us the more.

We lay glaring upon the moon as she coursed through a cloudy heaven. The wind whistled through the leaves, and its melancholy moaning sounded like our death-dirge. Several times through the night I heard the howl of the prairie wolf, and I knew it was Lincoln; but the Jarochos had pickets all around, and the hunter dared not approach our position. He could not have helped us.

The morning broke at last; and we were taken up, tied upon the backs of vicious mules, and hurried off through the woods. We travelled for some distance along a ridge, until we had reached its highest point, where the cliff beetled over. Here we were unpacked, and thrown upon the grass. About thirty of the Jarochos guarded us, and we now saw them under the broad light of day; but they did not look a whit more beautiful than they had appeared under the glare of the blazing rancho on the preceding night.

Lopez was at their head, and never relaxed his vigilance for a moment. It was plain that he considered the padre a man of his word.

After we had remained about half an hour on the brow of the cliff, an exclamation from one of the men drew our attention; and, looking round, we perceived a band of horsemen straggling up the hill at a slow gallop. It was Jarauta, with about fifty of his followers. They were soon close up to us.

“Buenos dias, caballeros!” (Good day, gentlemen!) cried their leader in a mocking tone, leaping down and approaching us, “I hope you passed the night comfortably. Lopez, I am sure, provided you with good beds. Didn’t you, Lopez?”

“Yes, Captain,” answered the laconic Lopez.

“The gentlemen rested well; didn’t they, Lopez?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“No kicking or tumbling about, eh?”

“No, Captain.”

“Oh! then they rested well; it’s a good thing: they have a long journey before them—haven’t they, Lopez?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“I hope, gentlemen, you are ready for the road. Do you think you are ready?”

As each of us had the shank of a bayonet between his teeth, besides being tied neck and heels, it is not likely that this interrogatory received a reply; nor did his “reverence” expect any, as he continued putting similar questions in quick succession, appealing occasionally to his lieutenant for an answer. The latter, who was of the taciturn school, contented himself, and his superior too, with a simple “yes” or “no.”

Up to this moment we had no knowledge of the fate that awaited us. We knew we had to die—that we knew; but in what way we were still ignorant. I, for one, had made up my mind that the padre intended pitching us over the cliffs.

We were at length enlightened upon this important point. We were not to take that awful leap into eternity which I had been picturing to myself. A fate more horrible still awaited us. We were to be hanged over the precipice!

As if to aid the monster in his inhuman design, several pine-trees grew out horizontally from the edge of the cliff; and over the branches of these the Jarochos commenced reeving their long lazos. Expert in the handling of ropes, as all Mexicans are, they were not long in completing their preparations, and we soon beheld our gallows.

“According to rank, Lopez,” cried Jarauta, seeing that all was ready; “the captain first—do you hear?”

“Yes, Captain,” answered the imperturbable brigand who superintended the operations.

“I shall keep you to the last, Monsieur,” said the priest, addressing Raoul; “you will have the pleasure of bringing up the rear in your passage through purgatory. Ha! ha! ha! Won’t he, Lopez?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Maybe some of you would like a priest, gentlemen.” This Jarauta uttered with an ironical grin that was revolting to behold. “If you would,” he continued, “say so. I sometimes officiate in that capacity myself. Don’t I, Lopez?”

“Yes, Captain.”

A diabolical laugh burst from the Jarochos, who had dismounted, and were standing out upon the cliff, the better to witness the spectacle of our hanging.

“Well, Lopez, does any of them say ‘yes’?”

“No, Captain.”

“Ask the Irishman there; ask him—he ought to be a good Catholic.”

The question was put to Chane, in mockery, of course, for it was impossible for him to answer it; and yet he did answer it, for his look spoke a curse as plainly as if it had been uttered through a trumpet. The Jarochos did not heed that, but only laughed the louder.

“Well, Lopez, what says Saint Patrick? ‘Yes’ or ‘no’?”

“‘No’, Captain.”

And a fresh peal of ruffian laughter rang out.

The rope was now placed around my neck in a running noose. The other end had been passed over the tree, and lay coiled near the edge of the cliff. Lopez held it in his hand a short distance above the coil, in order to direct its movements.

“All ready there, Lopez?” cried the leader.

“Yes, Captain.”

“Swing off the captain, then—no, not yet; let him look at the floor on which he is going to dance; that is but fair.”

I had been drawn forward until my feet projected over the edge of the precipice, and close to the root of the tree. I was now forced into a sitting posture, so that I might look below, my limbs hanging over. Strange to say, I could not resist doing exactly what my tormentor wished. Under other circumstances the sight would have been to me appalling; but my nerves were strung by the protracted agony I had been forced to endure.

The precipice on whose verge I sat formed a side of one of those yawning gulfs common in Spanish America, and known by the name barrancas. It seemed as if a mountain had been scooped out and carried away. Not two hundred yards horizontally distant was the twin jaw of the chasm, like a black burnt wall; yet the torrent that roared and foamed between them was full six hundred feet below my position! I could have flung the stump of a cigar upon the water; in fact, an object dropping vertically from where I sat—for it was a projecting point—must have fallen plumb into the stream.

It was not unlike the cañon where we had tossed over the dogs; but it was higher, and altogether more hell-like and horrible.

As I looked down, several small birds, whose species I did not stay to distinguish, were screaming below, and an eagle on his broad, bold wing came soaring over the abyss, and flapped up to my very face.

“Well, Captain,” broke in the sharp voice of Jarauta, “what do you think of it? A nice soft floor to dance upon, isn’t it, Lopez?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“All ready there? Stop! some music; we must have music: how can he dance without music? Hola, Sanchez, where’s your bugle?”

“Here, Captain!”

“Strike up, then! Play ‘Yankee Doodle’. Ha! ha! ha! ‘Yankee Doodle’, do you hear?”

“Yes, Captain,” answered the man; and the next moment the well-known strains of the American national air sounded upon my ear, producing a strange, sad feeling I shall never forget.

“Now, Lopez!” cried the padre.

I was expecting to be swung out, when I heard him again shout, “Stay!” at the same time stopping the music.

“By heavens! Lopez, I have a better plan,” he cried: “why did I not think of it before? It’s not too late yet. Ha! ha! ha! Carambo! They shall dance upon their heads! That’s better—isn’t it, Lopez?”

“Yes, Captain.”

A cheer from the Jarochos announced their approval of this change in the programme.

The padre made a sign to Lopez, who approached him, appearing to receive some directions.

I did not at first comprehend the novelty that was about to be introduced. I was not kept long in ignorance. One of the Jarochos, seizing me by the collar, dragged me back from the ledge, and transferred the noose from my neck to my ankles. Horror heaped upon horror! I was to be hung head downwards!

“That will be much prettier—won’t it, Lopez?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“The gentleman will have time to make himself ready for heaven before he dies—won’t he, Lopez?”

“Yes Captain.”

“Take out the gag—let him have his tongue free; he’ll need that to pray with—won’t he, Lopez?”

“Yes, Captain.”

One of the Jarochos jerked the bayonet roughly from my mouth, almost dislocating my jaw. The power of speech was gone. I could not, if I had wished it, have uttered an intelligible word.

“Give him his hands, too; he’ll need them to keep off the zopilotes; won’t he, Lopez?”

“Yes, Captain.”

The thong that bound my wrists was cut, leaving my hands free. I was on my back, my feet towards the precipice. A little to my right stood Lopez, holding the rope that was about to launch me into eternity.

“Now the music—take the music for your cue, Lopez; then jerk him up!” cried the sharp voice of the fiend.

I shut my eyes, waiting for the pull. It was but a moment, but it seemed a lifetime. There was a dead silence—a stillness like that which precedes the bursting of a rock or the firing of a jubilee-gun. Then I heard the first note of the bugle, and along with it a crack—the crack of a rifle; a man staggered over me, besprinkling my face with blood, and, falling forward, disappeared!

Then came the pluck upon my ankles, and I was jerked head downwards into the empty air. I felt my feet touching the branches above, and, throwing up my arms, I grasped one, and swung my body upwards. After two or three efforts I lay along the main trunk, which I embraced with the hug of despair. I looked downward. A man was hanging below—far below—at the end of the lazo! It was Lopez. I knew his scarlet manga at a glance. He was hanging by the thigh in a snarl of the rope.

His hat had fallen off. I could see the red blood running over his face and dripping from his long, snaky locks. He hung head down. I could see that he was dead!

The hard thong was cutting my ankles, and—oh, heaven!—under our united weight the roots were cracking! Appalling thought! “The tree will give way!” I held fast with one arm. I drew forth my knife—fortunately I still had one—with the other. I opened the blade with my teeth, and, stretching backward and downward, I drew it across the thong. It parted with a “snig”, and the red object left me like a flash of light. There was a plunge upon the black water below—a plunge and a few white bubbles; but the body of the Jarocho, with its scarlet trappings, was seen no more after that plunge.

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